Homage to Barbara Cartland

Jenny Diski

I could have left well alone; read the new autobiography and a novel or two and got stuck in. I’m not a great believer in the principle that talking to people is the best way of finding out who they really are. I’m not sure I’m even a great believer in the notion that there is a who-they-really-are to be found out. So why I petitioned for an interview with Barbara Cartland still baffles me, except perhaps that I enjoy improbability and (occasionally) being in situations that are entirely beyond my ken.

In preparation for our meeting, I was sent a package, the contents of which spilled out on the kitchen table, making an otherwise ordinary morning sparkle. It had proved impossible to find any of Dame Barbara’s novels in local bookshops or even W.H. Smith, though I was lent a copy of Lovers in Lisbon by Portuguese friends on condition that I cherished it. There were two novels in the package, A Nightingale Sang and The Disgraceful Duke, as well as a small pink booklet on the cover of which is a drawing of Dame Barbara looking very like Zsa Zsa Gabor in her youth, resting on a globe. The booklet enumerates all her doings and works. After listing her 600 novels, there is a heading: ‘Her Other Wonderful Books’, with sub-headings such as Philosophy, Sociology and Historical. Finally, and most movingly, there was a typescript bound in pink ribbon tied with a bow. The handwritten stick-on label reads: ‘How I want to be Remembered’. After elaborating on the 16 numbered life achievements of which she is most proud, she writes: ‘I am very thrilled by what I have achieved in my life and if nothing else, I would like to say a prayer of gratitude because I have helped a great number of people, both physically and spiritually, to find love.’

We spoke on the phone, and she explained why I had to sign an indemnity form before meeting her. ‘You see, my dear, people come and see me and then they go away and write that I wear too much mascara and that I am ugly.’ My heartstrings twanged, as they would faced with any 93-year-old who has been ill-used by the grown-ups. People can be so unkind. We negotiated and came to a compromise about the indemnity form: she could not have a veto over anything I wrote, but she could reject anything I quoted directly from our meeting. After reading the typescript Dame Barbara did, in fact, delete several passages and expanded all spoken contractions.

Camfield Place is a large gloomy house which was Elizabethan until Beatrix Potter’s grandfather (‘rich and without much taste’) demolished it to build himself a proper mansion. It’s dark and shadowy inside, so far removed from the world outside that you feel alarmed at stepping across the threshold and leaving the light behind. The dimness is relieved only by a scattering of gleaming rococo occasional tables, all cherubs and curlicues, but which look at first glance as if Jackson Pollock has been let loose with someone’s upchucked lunch and pots of gold paint. The room in which she received me was the green the Nile is supposed to be, but almost certainly isn’t. Not, alas, pink, though the dozen or so urns of flowers – two held spiritedly aloft by a pair of life-sized gilded satyrs – were symphonies of pink carnations, lilies and the like. But in common with the threadbare, taped-up carpets, the blooms had seen better days, and sagged with the effort of living up to the complexity of their arrangement.

Dame Barbara, on the other hand, was remarkably fresh and vigorous, in a multicoloured silk tea-frock, tripping along on her sandals and smiling quite a lot. She has a very nice smile, and hair like cumulus clouds, billowing white, tending upwards, and, being rather sparse, transparent enough to see the light from the window behind her scintillate through the wisps. The false eyelashes are a mistake because, being heavy, they tend to make her lids droop, concealing a pair of vivid green eyes, alert and interested, which you’d like to see more of. Still, we all need protection from the stranger’s glance. Me, I leave my spectacles on when I’m not sure of the company I’m keeping.

There is very little difference between the way Barbara Cartland writes about herself and the way she talks. In either mode what occurs is stream of consciousness, the like of which I haven’t encountered since Molly Bloom had her final say. One thought follows another, though rarely consequentially. Occasionally, it’s possible to glimpse an underlying connection, if not logic, as ideas hurtle along bumping into one another and doffing their hats. There is a chapter in her latest, fifth autobiography, I Reach for the Stars,[*] which seems for half its length to concern her memories of her great friend Lord Mountbatten. They were in the middle of writing a novel together (Love at the Helm – ‘he was to do the plot ... then I would do the love’) when he was killed. She mentions, in case we had forgotten, that he was Viceroy of India and swerves suddenly into an account of her own achievements in connection with the subcontinent: ‘When I first visited India in 1959, I stayed with the Governor of Bombay. He said: “Oh do speak to my women and tell them about your vitamins, I am sure they will be interested.” ’ They weren’t. Indeed, they had ‘no idea what I was talking about’. Indira Gandhi, when she came to power, did appreciate the vitamins and distributed them to her staff, and so in 1988, Dame Barbara went to open a health resort in Delhi. ‘The weather was lovely and I was able to wear a large pink hat and a thin dress.’ Next thing you know, it’s back to 1969 and she’s on a trip to Vienna, where the Mayor gave her a special dinner party because of her contribution to health. But miraculously it does come back to Dickie for a moment. She wrote a biography of Elizabeth of Austria, and ‘it was taken by the Elizabeth Club, who said it was the best biography ever written about her. They told Lord Mountbatten how pleased they were with it when he visited Vienna.’ You see? What goes around comes around.

When she speaks there is a problem about the ends of her sentences. The words come very fast, bubbling over to be released, but by the end of the sentence something goes – energy, the original intention, perhaps – and the last words dribble away, seeming to drop off and plummet into some deep underground cavern where all the words of all the ends of sentences lie tumbled and tangled together. It’s likely that the speed with which the words are delivered is an attempt to get as many as possible out before coming to the edge of the word precipice.

The Dame is full of advice, and some of it is to be treasured. Only the personal pronoun distinguishes the title of Dame Barbara’s autobiography from the title of the film about Douglas Bader, he who lost both legs as a fighter pilot. I supposed at first it was accidental, but in the book, after describing the death of her second husband, who had been badly wounded during the war, she explains: ‘Few people realise that when a man has been wounded and his blood circulation has been shortened, he is far more passionate than is normal.’ Though the Amazons ‘never had any use for men’ they nevertheless broke the legs of their prisoners because it made them better lovers. And according to Dame Barbara, Admiral Nelson of the single arm, was, not coincidentally, a virtuoso in the art of love, as was a very ordinary Guardsman in the Twenties to whom no one paid much attention until he fell from a station platform and damaged both legs. ‘After this he became one of the most sought-after men in London.’ No wonder Toulouse-Lautrec got all those girls to pose for him.

However, sex is no part of Dame Barbara’s art. In the romances, men may be bad and experienced (‘Someone has to know what they are doing,’ she confided to me over tea), but girls are pure and redeeming. Her novels are light-years from the Brontës’, yet they twinkle merrily at Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre across the chasm. The Disgraceful Duke is dark, dangerous and cynical, having to be horribly burned, his thrilling sinfulness purified by fire, before he can receive the consoling love of the innocent Shimona. So I was surprised when I read the following sentence in that novel: ‘Only a stupid woman would be overwhelmed by love.’ It had a dissonant ring of modernity, even modishness, about it. What did she mean, I asked her. She looked baffled. ‘Yes, well, I do not know quite what I meant by that. I was talking to the Prime Minister and what we are trying to say is that we are trying to get back to romance. Nowadays, it is sex, sex, sex.’

Dame Barbara frequently uses that word in a set of three. Earlier she explained: ‘Gradually, we are just getting back to romance, and that is what the Prime Minister calls getting back to the beginning. What we are trying to do is get rid of this sex business. In America the only thing that sells is dirty sex, as dirty as possible. Sex, sex, sex.’

What about ‘the beginning’? In the beginning ‘the Greeks believed that God made first of all, as I say, a man, and because he was lonely, He cut the man in half and the soft sweet gentle spiritual half became the woman. The man was the fighter and protector. So now we are always looking for the other half of ourselves.’ Dame Barbara would seem to have Gnostic tendencies. Love is the mystical search for and sudden recognition of the completing other-gendered side of yourself. Like three-quarters of the world, she says, she believes in the wheel of rebirth. Those, like her adored brother Ronald, killed at Dunkirk, who are ‘so advanced, so up’, go on to the Fourth Dimension (it sounded very upper-case). The rest of us get reborn in incremental stages. ‘They say to me how can you bear India when you see them living on the pavement? They are perfectly happy, much more happy than they would be in England, because they believe they are going to have a better body next time.’

I imagine this is her solution to a moment of moral difficulty she encountered in 1926. In an earlier, reissued, autobiography, We Danced All Night,[†] she describes her part in saving the country from the ‘unknown dangers’ of the General Strike. She went, one of the Bright Young Things, on an errand from strike-breaking headquarters to a vicarage in the Harrow Road. She had never been to this part of London, nor ever seen ‘the dirty streets, the dilapidated, mean little houses badly in need of repair, the ragged children running about with insufficient clothes and bare feet’. The poverty struck her ‘with surprise’ and she wondered for the first time since the strike began ‘if the miners were not justified in refusing a cut in their wages’. At the vicarage with its ‘inevitable smell of cabbage’ (positively Orwellian, that) a woman bumps into her on the stairs, drops her shopping bag of meagre groceries and bursts into tears. Young Barbara is embarrassed and apologises, assuring her that the potatoes will be all right. ‘It isn’t that, miss, and you ’aven’t done any ’arm.’

She tells bright young Barbara about her striking husband, five children, the overdue rent and there not being enough to buy medicine for the little one who’s been so ill. Barbara gropes for her purse, and finding 22s 3d (I wonder if there wasn’t an odd halfpenny she’s forgotten over the past seventy years), gives it to the woman. ‘ “God bless you, miss,” she said, the tears starting to her eyes ... But going home I knew that 22s 3d had not salved my conscience. How long would it last to feed a family of five children? And how many families were there without help, without hope?’

Easy enough to sneer, and it’s true that after that we hear only of the heroism of the strikebreakers and the violence of the strikers, but here was a moment when a shaft of reality impinged on the pink dream. Then the curtain fell, and the world became for ever more a place where ‘you cannot get a woman to come and clean the house because the dole pays them too much.’ Maybe that moment in 1926 was Dame Barbara’s chance to move into a better body next time round. I fear she may have failed the test.

In any case, she’d moved on from the wheel of fortune to the subject of women priests. ‘I do not like women priests. Ach, pushy women. You are not allowed to say God’s a man now.’

‘You don’t think women are the equal of men?’ I managed to get in.

‘Men have a much greater ... sense ... of what is right and what is wrong than women. Women always think, well, perhaps I can get round it, do you know what I mean?’

‘Men are more moral than women?’ I asked.

‘Morally, I think men are much stronger, Why? Because women are weaker and less intelligent.’ She giggled. ‘That will make me popular. You know perfectly well they are not as intelligent as men, and they have awful squeaky voices. Why do we now have to have a woman reading about the games?’ She makes a series of mimsy high-pitched squeaks mimicking a woman commentating on the cricket on television.

‘You don’t like women much?’

‘Women are very sweet and nice, but you always have to be rather careful that they do not run off with your husband or your best lover. They are rather inclined to do that. Don’t you see, you have got to be careful of women. The men do not make trouble, at least not with me.’

I’ve noticed. I say, getting on to the writing, that you write in paragraphs of one sentence. ‘That’s journalism,’ she tells me. Lord Beaverbrook taught her. Always write in short paragraphs, he told her before asking her for a kiss which she refused saying she was saving her kisses for the man she would marry. He respected her for that. As to inspiration: ‘When I want a plot, I say to God, please give me a plot. And it works.’ Though sometimes God is not immediately obliging. ‘The other day He was a bit slow; I thought perhaps He is bored with me. I asked my secretaries, bring me up all my research on the Restoration ... you know, George V ... and as it was coming, a voice said, absolutely clearly: “Panama Canal.” I knew nothing about the Panama Canal, but as I read about it, it was absolutely riveting. Disraeli would not let us join in building it because they used slave labour. Later Lord Rothschild bought a great number of shares back from the French and Disraeli was able to go to Queen Victoria and say: “I bought you the Suez Canal, Ma’am!” It gave us a quick way to India.’ Since she takes only two weeks to dictate a novel, we may expect the Panama/Suez Canal book very soon.

In the autobiographies she harps continually on physical beauty – hers most of all, but all the other well-bred girls are described as terribly beautiful, as if it came with the inherited land. Oddly, looking at the photos it’s hard to discern the jaw-hanging nature of their loveliness. It’s as if I do not have the key to it, and see only rather round-faced, unremarkable-looking young women. In much the same way one has to take on trust the astonishng oratorical power Hitler was supposed to possess: such film as remains of his speeches leaves you shrugging.

There is a brief insight. While pregnant with Raine, she determined that her child would be beautiful. She bought a picture of a very attractive baby and looked at it every day. She was concerned for her child because she had ‘suffered so much myself by hearing people say I was plain when I was young’. When I asked her about this, she did not hear me, then when I repeated my question she said: ‘Yes, yes, I became very beautiful.’ Perhaps, after all, what I see in the old photos is what there is, and what she remembers is what they told each other.

She describes the young people of the Twenties as rebels, dancing madly against the memory of the war and all those lost young men. ‘What we danced in those days,’ she told a journalist who phoned her to ask about the revival of the tango, ‘was swinging round. And we danced round and round and round. I did not do the tango, it was rather ... complicated.’ It sounds almost tragic, very Scott Fitzgerald, until you remember the woman on the stairs with the five children and the sad sack of groceries. Perhaps all that going round and round prevented her from going forward and she came to an emotional end of paragraph. She has known sadness: the death of her father and two brothers in the world wars, and even divorce from her first husband, who was named co-respondent in the divorce case of the woman he took to the drink with. But the darker experiences seem somehow unexperienced. It’s as if the 93-year-old Dame Barbara is not a day older than the minimally experienced 25-year-old girl who, after the nastiness of the war and the General Strike, resumed her life at the Embassy Club and Deauville, dancing the nights away and collecting proposals (‘After receiving 49 proposals of marriage I accepted the 50th’). What is revealed, in both real life and the books, is a forever childish mind grabbing at the opinions of those she admires (men in general unless they’re socialists, and Margaret Thatcher: ‘Margaret was the only woman who understood money’).

‘Look what happens,’ she says, summing up the damage done by ‘Women’s Lib’. ‘We have got more children taking drugs than ever before. The women from the East bring them in, hidden in their clothes and then sell them.’ Are you quite sure, Dame Barbara? Dame Barbara is quite, quite sure. Being sure is what Barbara Cartland excels at. But it’s the certainty of a child mis-parroting the adults, who are always to be trusted.

‘I make people happy,’ she says over and over again. She makes them happy with her love stories without sex (though dripping with suppressed passion), and with vitamins, and advice about the failings of the modern world. She goes around the world and is received with smiles and awards for bringing health and happiness. In 1981 she was chosen as ‘Achiever of the Year’, by the National Home Furnishing Association of Colorado Springs, for her wallpaper and fabric designs, and all the women at the ceremony wore pink. The award is one of a score of achievements in ‘How I Want to be Remembered’. Another was keeping Neil Kinnock out of government at the 1992 election with a letter to 962 newspapers and magazines. I don’t believe this journal published it. It went as follows:

I am very surprised that the Church has not, in any way, pointed out to the people that Mr Kinnock is an avowed atheist, and his wife said the other day, ‘I do not believe in God, and when I get to No 10 I am going on teaching children.’ If you vote for Kinnock, you are voting against Christ who said: ‘Suffer little children to come unto me.’

Dame Barbara, for all her great age, must, I think, be very close to Christ.

[*] Robson, 197 pp., £14.95, 28 July, 0 86051 924 4.

[†] Robson, 311 pp., £9.99, 28 July, 086051 925 2.